Keys To Web 3.0 Design and Development When Using ASP.NET
You can skip the following boring story as it's only a prelude to the meat of this post.
As I've been sitting at my job lately trying to pull off my web development ninja skillz I feel like my hands tied behind my back because I'm there temporarily as a consultant to add features, not to refactor. The current task at hand involves adding a couple additional properties to key user component in a rich web application. This requires a couple extra database columns and a bit of HTML interaction to collect the new settings. All in all, about 15 minutes, right? Slap in the columns into the database, update the SQL SELECT query, throw on a couple ASP.NET controls, add some data binding, and you're done, right? Surely not more than an hour, right?
Try three hours, just to add the columns to the database! The HTML is driven by a data "business object" that isn't a business object at all, just a data layer that has method stubs for invoking stored procedures and returns only DataTables. There are four types of "objects" based on the table being modified, and each type has its own stored procedure that ultimately proxies out to the base type's stored procedure, so that means at least five stored procedures for each CRUD operation affected by the addition. Overall, about 10 database objects were touched and as many C# data layer objects as well. Add to that a proprietary XML file that is used to map these data objects' DataTable columns, both in (parameters) and out (fields).
That's just the data. Then on the ASP.NET side, to manage event properties there's a control that's inheriting another control that is contained by another control that is contained by two other controls before it finally shows up on the page. Changes to the properties are a mix of hard-wired bindings to the lowest base control (properties) for some of the user's settings, and for most of the rest of the user's settings on the same page, CLR events (event args) are raised by the controls and are captured by the page that contains it all. There are at least five different events, one for each "section" of properties. To top it off, in my shame, I added both another "SaveXXX" event, plus I added another way of passing the data--I use a series of FindControl(..) invocation chains to get to the buried control and fetch the setting I wanted to add to the database and/or translate back out to the view. (I would have done better than to add more kludge, but I couldn't without being enticed to refactor, which I couldn't do, it's a temporary contract and the boss insisted that I not.)
To top it all off, just the simple CRUD stored procedures alone are slower than an eye blink, and seemingly showstopping in code. It takes about five seconds to handle each postback on this page, and I'm running locally (with a networked SQL Server instance).
The guys who architected all this are long gone. This wasn't the first time I've been baffled by the output of an architect who tries too hard to do the architectural deed while forgetting that his job is not only to be declarative on all layers but also to balance it with performance and making the developers' lives less complicated. In order for the team to be agile, the code must be easily adaptable.
Plus the machine I was given is, just like everyone else's, a cheap Dell with 2GB RAM and a 17" LCD monitor. (At my last job, which I quit, I had a 30-inch monitor and 4GB RAM which I replaced without permission and on my own whim with 8GB.) I frequently get OutOfMemoryExceptions from Visual Studio when trying to simply compile the code.
There are a number of reasons I can pinpoint to describe exactly why this web application has been so horrible to work with. Among them,
The architecture violates the KISS principle. The extremities of the data layer prove to be confounding, and buring controls inside controls (compositing) and then forking instances of them are a severe abuse of ASP.NET "flexibility".
OOP principles were completely ignored. Not a single data layer inherits from another. There is no business object among the "Business" objects' namespace, only data invocation stubs that wrap stored procedure execution with a transactional context, and DataTables for output. No POCO objects to represent any of the data or to reuse inherited code.
Tables, not stored procedures, should be used in basic CRUD operations. One should use stored procedures only in complex operations where multiple two-way queries must be accomplished to get a job done. Good for operations, bad for basic data I/O and model management.
Way too much emphasis on relying on Web Forms "featureset" and lifcycle (event raising, viewstate hacking, control compositing, etc.) to accomplish functionality, and way too little understanding and utilization of the basic birds and butterflies (HTML and script).
Way too little attention to developer productivity by failure to move the development database to the local switch, have adequate RAM, and provide adequate screen real estate to manage hundreds of database objects and hundreds of thousands of lines of code.
Admittance of the development manager of the sadly ignorant and costly attitude that "managers don't care about cleaning things up and refactoring, they just want to get things done and be done with it"--I say "ignorant and costly" because my billable hours were more than quadrupled versus having clean, editable code to begin with.
New features are not testable in isolation -- in fact, they aren't even compilable in isolation. I can compile and do lightweight testing of the data layer without more than a few heartbeats, but it takes two minutes to compile the web site just to see where my syntax or other compiler-detected errors are in my code additions (and I haven't been sleeping well lately so I'm hitting the Rebuild button and monitoring the Errors window an awful lot).
Even as I study (ever so slowly) for MCPD certification for my own reasons while I'm at home (spare me the biased anti-Microsoft flames on that, I don't care) I'm finding that Microsoft end developers (Morts) and Microsofties (Redmondites) alike are struggling with the bulk of their own technology and are heaping up upon themselves the knowledge of their own infrastructure before fully appreciating the beauty and the simplicity of the pure basics. Fortunately, Microsoft has had enough, and they've been long and hard at the drawing board to reinvent ASP.NET with ASP.NET MVC. But my interests are not entirely, or not necessarily, MVC-related.
All I really want is for this big fat pillow to be taken off of my face, and all these multiple layers of coats and sweatshirts and mittens and ski pants and snow boots to be taken off me, so I can stomp around wearing just enough of what I need to be decent. I need to breathe, I need to move around, and I need to be able to do some ninja kung fu.
These experiences I've had with ASP.NET solutions often make me sit around brainstorming how I'd build the same solutions differently. It's always easy to be everyone's skeptic, and it requires humility to acknowledge that just because you didn't write something or it isn't in your style or flavor doesn't mean it's bad or poorly produced. Sometimes, however, it is. And most solutions built with Web Forms, actually, are.
I intend to do my part, although intentions are easy, actions can be hard. But I've helped design an elaborate client-side MVC framework before, with great pride, I'm thinking about doing it again and implementing myself (I didn't have the luxury of exclusivity of implementation last time) and open sourcing it for the ASP.NET crowd. I'm also thinking about building a certain kind of ASP.NET solution I've frequently needed to work with (CRM? CMS? Social? something else? *grin* I won't say just yet), that takes advantage of certain principles.
What principles? I need to establish these before I even begin. These have already worked their way into my head and my attitude and are already an influence in every choice I make in web architecture, and I think they're worth sharing.
Why? Because despite the fact that client-side debugging tools are less evolved than on the server (no edit-and-continue in VS, for example, and FireBug is itself buggy), the overhead of managing presentation logic in a (server) context that doesn't relate to the user's runtime is just too much to deal with sometimes. Server code often takes time to recompile, whereas scripts don't typically require compilation at all. While in theory there is plenty of control on the server to debug what's needed while you have control of it in your own predictable environment, in practice there are just too many stop-edit-retry cycles going on in server-oriented view management.
And here's why that is. The big reason to move view to the client is because developers are just writing WAY too much view, business, and data mangling logic in the same scope and context. Client-driven view management nearly forces the developer to isolate view logic from data. In ASP.NET Web Forms, your 3 tiers are database, data+view mangling on the server, and finally whatever poor and unlucky little animal (browser) has to suffer with the resulting HTML. ASP.NET MVC changes that to essentially five tiers: the database, the models, the controller, the server-side view template,and finally whatever poor and unlucky little animal has to suffer with the resulting HTML. (Okay, Microsoft might be changing that with adopting jQuery and promising a client solution, we'll see.)
Most importantly, client-driven views make for a much richer, more interactive UIX (User Interface/eXperience); you can, for example reveal/hide or enable/disable a set of sub-questions depending on if the user checks a checkbox, with instant gratification. The ASP.NET Web Forms model would have it automatically perform a form post to refresh the page with the area enabled/disabled/revealed/hidden depending on the checked state. The difference is profound--a millisecond or two versus an entire second or two.
2. Abandon ASP.NET Web Forms. RoR implements a good model, try gleaning from that. ASP.NET MVC might be the way of the future. But frankly, most of the insanely popular web solutions on the Internet are PHP-driven these days, and I'm betting that's because PHP is on a similar coding model as ASP classic. No MVC stubs. No code-behinds. All that stuff can be tailored into a site as a matter of discipline (one of the reasons why PHP added OOP), but you're not forced into a one-size-fits-all paradigm, you just write your HTML templates and go.
Why? Web Forms is a bear. Its only two advantages are the ability to drag-and-drop functionality onto a page and watch it go, and premier vender (Microsoft / Visual Studio / MSDN) support. But it's difficult to optimize, difficult to templatize, difficult to abstract away from business logic layers (if at least difficult in that it requires intentional discipline), and puts way too much emphasis on the lifecycle of the page hit and postback. Look around at the ASP.NET web forms solutions out there. Web Forms is crusty like Visual Basic is crusty. It was created for, and is mostly used for, corporate grunts who use B2B (business-to-business) or internal apps. The rest of the web sites who use ASP.NET Web Forms suffer greatly from the painful code bloat of the ASP.NET Web Forms coding model and the horrible end-user costs of page bloat and round-trip navigation.
Kudos to Guthrie, et al, who developed Web Forms, it is a neat technology, but it is absolutely NOT a one-size-fits-all platform any more than my winter coat from Minnesota is. So congratulations to Microsoft for picking up the ball and working on ASP.NET MVC.
3. Use callbacks, not postbacks. Sometimes a single little control, like a textbox that behaves like an auto-suggest combobox, just needs a dedicated URL to perform an AJAX query against. But also, in ASP.NET space, I envision the return of multiple <form>'s, with DHTML-based page MVC controllers powering them all, driving them through AJAX/XmlHttpRequest.
Clearing and redrawing the screen is as bad as 1980s BBS ANSI screen redraws. It's obsolete. We don't need to write apps that way. Postbacks are cheap; don't be cheap. Be agile; use patterns, practices, and techniques that save development time and energy while avoiding the loss of a fluid user experience. <form action="someplace" /> should *always* have an onsubmit handler that returns false but runs an AJAX-driven post. The page should *optionally* redirect, but more likely only the area of the form or a region of the page (a containing DIV perhaps) should be replaced with the results of the post. Retain your header and sidebar in the user experience, and don't even let the content area go white for a split second. Buffer the HTML and display it when ready.
4. By default, allow users to log in without accessing a log in page. A slight tangent (or so it would seem), this is a UI design constraint, something that has been a pet peeve of mine ever since I realized that it's totally unnecessary to have a login page. If you don't want to put ugly Username/Password fields on the header or sidebar, use AJAX.
Why? Because if a user visits your site and sees something interesting and clicks on a link, but membership is required, the entire user experience is inturrupted by the disruption of a login screen. Instead, fade out to 60%, show a DHTML pop-up login, and fade in and continue forward. The user never leaves the page before seeing the link or functionality being accessed.
Imagine if Microsoft Windows' UAC, OS X's keyring, or GNOME's sudo auth, did a total clear-screen and ignored your action whenever it needed an Administrator password. Thankfully it doesn't work that way; the flow is paused with a small dialogue box, not flat out inturrupted.
5. Abandon the Internet Explorer "standard". This goes to corporate folks who target IE. I am not saying this as an anti-IE bigot. In fact, I'm saying this in Internet Explorer's favor. Internet Explorer 8 (currently not yet released, still in beta) introduces better web standards support than previous versions of Internet Explorer, and it's not nearly as far behind the trail of Firefox and WebKit (Safari, Chrome) as Internet Explorer 7 is. With this reality, web developers can finally and safely build W3C-compliant web applications without worrying too much about which browser vendor the user is using, and instead ask the user to get the latest version.
I've blogged it before and I'll mention it again, the one, first, and most recent time I ever had to personally fire a co-worker (due to my boss being out of town and my having authority, and my boss requesting it of me over the phone) was when I was working with an "imported" contractor who had a master's degree and full Microsoft certification, but could not copy two simple hyperlinks with revised URLs within less than 5-10 minutes while I watched. The whole office was in a gossipping frenzy, "What? Couldn't create a hyperlink? Who doesn't know HTML?! How could anyone not know HTML?!", but I realized that the core fundamentals have been taken for granted by us as technologists to such an extent that we've forgotten how important it is to value it in our hiring processes.
7. ADO.NET direct SQL code or ORM. Pick one. Just don't use data layers. Learn OOP fundamentals. The ActiveRecord pattern is nice. Alternatively, if it's a really lightweight web solution, just go back to wring plain Jane SQL with ADO.NET. If you're using C# 3.0, which of course you are in the context of this blog entry, then use LINQ-to-SQL or LINQ-to-Entities. On the ORM side, however, I'm losing favor with some of them because they often cater to a particular crowd. nHibernate comes to mind. I'm slow to say "enterprise" because, frankly, too many people assume the word "enterprise" for their solutions when they are anything but. Even web sites running at tens of thousands of hits a day and generating hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue every month don't necessarily mean "enterprise". The term "enterprise" is more of a people management inference than a stability or quality effort. It's about getting many people on your team using the same patterns and not having loose and abrupt access to thrash the database. For that matter, the corporate slacks-and-tie crowd of ASP.NET "Morts" often can relate to "enterprise", and not even realize it. But for a very small team (10 or less) and especially for a micro ISV (developers numbering 5 or less) with a casual and agile attitude, take the word "enterprise" with a grain of salt. You don't need a gajillion layers of red tape. For that matter, though, smaller teams are usually small because of tighter budgets, and that usually means tighter deadlines, and that means developer productivity must reign right there alongside stability and performance. So find an ORM solution that emphasizes productivity (minimal maintenance and easily adaptable) and don't you dare trade routine refactoring for task-oriented focus as you'll end up just wasting everyone's time in the long run. Always include refactoring to simplicity in your maintenance schedule.
Why? Why go raw with ADO.NET direct SQL or choose an ORM? Because some people take the data layer WAY too far. Focus on what matters; take the effort to avoid the effort of fussing with the data tier. Data management is less important than most teams seem to think. The developer's focus should be on the UIX (User Interface/eXperience) and the application functionality, not how to store the data. There are three areas where the typical emphasis on data management is agreeably important: stability, performance (both of which are why we choose SQL Server over, oh, I dunno, XML files?) and queryability. The latter is important both for the application and for decision makers. But a fourth requirement is routinely overlooked, and that is the emphasis on being able to establish a lightweight developer workflow of working with data so that you can create features quickly and adapt existing code easily. Again, this is why a proper understanding of OOP, how to apply it, when to use it, etc, is emphasized all the time, by yours truly. Learn the value of abstraction and inheritence and of encapsulating interfaces (resulting in polymorphism). Your business objects should not be much more than POCO objects with application-realized properties. Adding a new simple data-persisted object, or modifying an existing one with, say, a new column, should not take more than a minute of one's time. Spend the rest of that time instead on how best to impress the user with a snappy, responsive user interface.
8. Callback-driven content should derive equally easily from your server, your partner's site, or some strange web service all the way in la-la land. We're aspiring for Web 3.0 now, but what happened to Web 2.0? We're building on top of it! Web 2.0 brought us mashups, single sign-ons, and cross-site social networking. FaceBook Applications are a classic demonstration of an excelling student of Web 2.0 now graduating and turning into a Web 3.0 student. Problem is, keeping the momentum going, who's driving this rig? If it's not you, you're missing out on the 3.0 vision.
Why? Because now you can. Hopefully by now you've already shifted the bulk of the view logic over to the client. And you've empowered your developers to focus on the front-end UIX. Now, though, the client view is empowered to do more. It still has to derive content from you, but in a callback-driven architecture, the content is URL-defined. As long as security implications are resolved, you now have the entire web at your [visitors'] disposal! Now turn it around to yourself and make your site benefit from it!
If you're already invoking web services, get that stuff off your servers! Web services queried from the server cost bandwidth and add significant time overhead before the page is released from the buffer to the client. The whole time you're fetching the results of a web service you're querying, the client is sitting there looking at a busy animation or a blank screen. Don't let that happen! Throw the client a bone and let it fetch the external resources on its own.
9. Pay attention to the UIX design styles of the non-ASP.NET Web 2.0/3.0 communities. There is such a thing as a "Web 2.0 look", whether we like to admit it or not; we web developers evolved and came up with innovations worth standardizing on, why can't designers evolve and come up with visual innovations worth standardizing on? If the end user's happiness is our goal, how are features and stable and performant code more important than aesthetics and ease of use? The problem is, one perspective of what "the Web 2.0 look" actually looks like is likely very different from another's or my own. I'm not speaking of heavy gloss or diagonal lines. I most certainly am not talking about the "bubble gum" look. (I jokingly mutter "Let's redesign that with diagonal lines and beveled corners!" now and then, but when I said that to my previous boss and co-worker, both of whom already looked down on me WAY more than they deserved to do, neither of them understood that I was joking. Or, at least, they didn't laugh or even smile.) No, but I am talking about the use of artistic elements, font choices and font styles, and layout characteristics that make a web site stand out from the crowd as being highly usable and engaging.
Let's demonstrate, shall we? Here are some sites and solutions that deserve some praise. None of them are ASP.NET-oriented.
- http://www.deskaway.com/ (ignore the ugly logo but otherwise take in the beauty of the design and workflow; elegant font choice)
- http://www.mosso.com/ (I really admire the visual layout of this JavaServer Pages driven site; fortunately I love the fact that they support ASP.NET on their product)
- http://www.feedburner.com/ (these guys did a redesign not too terribly long ago; I really admire their selective use of background patterns, large-font textboxes, hover effects, and overall aesthetic flow)
- http://www.phpbb.com/ (stunning layout, rock solid functionality, universal acceptance)
- http://www.joomla.org/ (a beautiful and powerful open source CMS)
- http://goplan.org/ (I don't like the color scheme but I do like the sheer simplicity
- .. for that matter I also love the design and simplicity of http://www.curdbee.com/)
Now here are some ASP.NET-oriented sites. They are some of the most popular ASP.NET-driven sites and solutions, but their design characteristics, frankly, feel like the late 90s.
- http://www.dotnetnuke.com/ (one of the most popular CMS/portal options in the open source ASP.NET community .. and, frankly, I hate it)
- http://www.officelive.com/ (sign in and discover a lot of features with a "smart client" feel, but somehow it looks and feels slow, kludgy, and unrefined; I think it's because Microsoft doesn't get out much)
- http://communityserver.com/ (it looks like a step in the right direction, but there's an awful lot of smoke and mirrors; follow the Community link and you'll see the best of what the ASP.NET community has to offer in the way of forums .. which frankly doesn't impress me as much as phpBB)
- http://www.dotnetblogengine.net/ (my blog uses this, I like it well enough, but it's just one niche, and that's straight-and-simple blogs
- http://subsonicproject.com/ (the ORM technology is very nice, but the site design is only "not bad", and the web site starter kit leave me shrugging with a shiver)
Let's face it, the ASP.NET community is not driven by designers.
Why? Why do I ramble on about such fluffy things? Because at my current job (see the intro text) the site design is a dump of one feature hastilly slapped on after another, and although the web app has a lot of features and plenty of AJAX to empower it here and there, it is, for the most part, an ugly and disgusting piece of cow dung in the area of UIX (User Interface/eXperience). AJAX functionality is based on third party components that "magically just work" while gobs and gobs of gobblygook code on the back end attempts to wire everything together, and what AJAX is there is both rare and slow, encumbered by page bloat and server bloat. The front-end appearance is amateurish, and I'm disheartened as a web developer to work with it.
Such seems to be the makeup of way too many ASP.NET solutions that I've seen.
10. Componentize the client. Use "controls" on the client in the same way you might use .ASCX controls on the server, and in the process of doing this, implement a lifecycle and communications subsystem on the client. This is what I want to do, and again I'm thinking of coming up with a framework to pursue it to compliment Microsoft's and others' efforts. If someone else (i.e. Microsoft) beats me to it, fine. I just hope theirs is better than mine.
Why? Well if you're going to emphasize the client, you need to be able to have a manageable development workflow.
On the competitive front, take a look at http://www.wavemaker.com/. Talk about drag-and-drop coding for smart client-side applications, driven by a rich server back-end (Java). This is some serious competition indeed.
Why? Every time the primary section of content changes, in my opinion, it should have a URI, and that should be reflected (somehow) in the browser's Address field. Even if it's going to be impossible to make the URL SEO-friendly (because there are no predictable hyperlinks that are spiderable), the user should be able to return to the same view later, without stepping through a number of steps of logging in and clicking around. This is partly the very definition of the World Wide Web: All around the world, content is reflected with a URL.
And absolutely, without hesitation, learn jQuery, which Microsoft will be supporting from here on out in Visual Studio and ASP.NET. Discover the plug-ins and try to figure out how you can leverage them in an ASP.NET environment.
Why? Because you've lived in a box for too long. You need to get out and smell the fresh air. Look at the people as they pass you by. You are a free human being. Dare yourself to think outside the box. Innovate. Did you know that most innovations are gleaning from other people's imaginative ideas and implemenations, and reapplying them in your own world, using your own tools? Why should Ruby on Rails have a coding workflow that's better than ASP.NET? Why should PHP be a significantly more popular platform on the public web than ASP.NET, what makes it so special besides being completely free of Redmondite ties? Can you interoperate with it? Have you tried? How can the innovations of Jaxer be applied to the IIS 7 and ASP.NET scenario, what can you do to see something as earth-shattering inside this Mortian realm? How can you leverage jQuery to make your web site do things you wouldn't have dreamed of trying to do otherwise? Or at least, how can you apply it to make your web application more responsive and interactive than the typical junk you've been pumping out?
You can be a much more productive developer. The whole world is at your fingertips, you only need to pay attention to it and learn how to leverage it to your advantage.
And these things, I believe, are what is going to drive the Web 1.0 Morts in the direction of Web 3.0, building on the hard work of yesteryear's progress and making the most of the most powerful, flexible, stable, and comprehensive server and web development technology currently in existence--ASP.NET and Visual Studio--by breaking out of their molds and entering into the new frontier.
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